In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

The Last Christmas Carol

Gipper One - IMG_4205

Gipper One – IMG_4205 (Photo credit: jeroen020)

Copyright © 2009 by Stephen W. Potts. All rights reserved.

It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring except W. The single frosty window in the relatively modest room showed only darkness, though outside Camp David was covered in snow. Inside, settled on the sofa before the television and fireplace, W. felt cozy in his presidential pajamas and robe. He cradled a bowl of pretzels in his lap, desultorily munching one even though the taste of the turkey dinner he had eaten hours ago lingered on in the occasional belch. Habitually he would have been long in bed by this time, but after lying on his presidential pillow for half an hour, he had found himself oddly restless and had risen again. Perhaps he had eaten too much. Perhaps the awareness that this was his last Christmas in office — his last month, in fact — had taken roost in his mind, which was normally undisturbed by thought. In any case, now he stared at a repeat of some Christmas special with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the sound turned down, while fragments of pretzel crunched in his head.

A noise on the other side of the closed hallway door roused him mildly, and when he heard it again he sought out the remote and muted the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Silent Night.” It came again — sounding as if someone were dragging something down the hall. It paused with a metallic rattle.

“Barney?” he called out. He had left the terrier curled up in the bedroom.

The dragging sound resumed, coming closer. W. stood and shuffled toward the door. “Bullitt, is that you?” he asked, giving his nickname for one of the Secret Servicemen servicing him that Christmas. “Magnum?” he said, referring to the other. He had always found it easier to remember nicknames.

The jingling stopped just on the other side of the door. When the door burst open as though something had exploded, W. leapt backward.

“Jesus Christ!”

The familiar face in the doorway momentarily looked just as startled.

“No, not the birthday boy,” came the familiar breathy baritone. “Although you guys always did get us confused.”

“Uh — Pres . . . Mr. Reagan?” W.’s eyes got squintier. “Is this some kind of a trick, or am I dreaming?”

“Don’t ask me. I just follow the script.”

W. peered down at the bowl of pretzels still nestled in his arm. “It must be all that dinner I ate.”

“I think this is the part where I’m supposed to wail or something to convince you I’m real. My memory’s not what it used to be. Anyway . . . ” The specter cleared its throat. The head — capped with shiny black, frost-streaked hair-lifted, as did a pair of arms wrapped in heavy chains. The Gipper’s wattles shook as his image opened its mouth and yodeled hoarsely while rattling the chains.

“Hey, shush,” hissed W. “You’ll wake everybody up.” He hugged the bowl to his chest with a startled shiver. “Now what’s this all about?”

“So you do trust your own eyes?”

“I only trust my gut. And it tells me I shouldna had that extra piece of pecan pie.”

“Trust, but verify.” The Gipper leaned forward against the chains, reminding W. of those strongmen on TV dragging a railroad car. The clatter of chains in the hallway was accompanied by a loud scraping. As W. watched, a pair of caskets lodged in the doorway. Grunting, the specter yanked them through, chunks of jamb flying into the room.

“Hey!” said W. “Watch it! You can’t just go around breaking things.”

“No, you can’t.” The other stopped and sucked in a breath. “Or you might end up with this.” He jabbed a thumb at the door. “Take a look.”

Hugging the pretzel bowl, W. shuffled past the coffins to find yet another pair jammed in the doorway. Leaning over them, he peered around the threshold. Through the shadowy light he saw the heavy chains extending down the hallway like a monstrous charm bracelet, dragging pair after pair of other caskets-light wood, dark wood, gleaming metal-as well as body bags and even the occasional bare Skull and Bones.

“Whoa, bummer,” he said. “What is this, Halloween?”

“This is my legacy,” wheezed the spirit. “Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada. Changing environmental rules to allow our corporate buddies to poison the public. Cutting aid to the poor and declaring ketchup a vegetable for school lunch programs. Making it harder to get health care. Did you know my administration prevented rollover statistics on SUV’s from getting out in the open? Instead, we convinced everybody that small cars were dangerous.”

“Wow. Heh-heh. I guess you could convince almost anybody of anything. That’s what made you such a great Republican president.”

“And there was a lot more stuff I can’t even remember now. My memory’s not what it used to be.”

“Yeah, you just said that.”

“See?” The figure slowly shook its head. “But now I am forced to drag my legacy with me forever. And yours looks like it’s going to be even more of a drag.”

W.’s brows puckered. “Hey, you’re not misremembered so badly, and some day history is going to decide I wasn’t so bad either. Why, Karl was just telling me just this week –“

“You’re not going to make me wail again, are you?” The Gipper cleared his throat warningly. “Look, let’s get this over with. You know the story, right?”

“What story? I don’t know what the dickens you’re talking about.”

“Okay, it’s like this. You have one last chance to lighten your load.” He ponderously yanked the chains. “One last chance to undo some of the damage you’ve done.”

“Actually, I was just thinking it was time to get back to bed.”

“Won’t make a difference. You’re going to be visited by two, no, three — I don’t remember exactly — some ghosts tonight.”

“This still sounds like Halloween to me. Sure it’s not elves? Heh-heh.”

The specter tossed its head and sighed dramatically. “There you go again. Now when the ghosts show up, you’re going to have to pay attention. I think there’s some kind of test afterward.”

“Crap. I don’t have to take tests. I’m the Decider.”

“Then you have some decisions to make. You know, now I remember what we used to call you in the White House.”

“What?”

“Bonzo.”

And suddenly it was as if the Gipper’s flesh were transparent, and W. saw a skull through the familiar wrinkled face under a crown of white hair. It was like Pirates of the Caribbean.

Then there was a flash like a camera going off.

W. woke up on the sofa. He blinked in the dim flicker from the television. The door to the hallway was closed. Except for him, the room was uninhabited.

“I knew it was just a dream,” he mumbled. He struggled to sit up. He dropped his slippered feet to the floor and they crunched; he spotted the bowl of pretzels spilled underfoot. “Well, I guess it’s bedtime for-“

The door burst open. In stepped a tall guy dressed in yellow tights, a green jacket belted around the waist, and a pointy cap over curly hair.

“Jesus Christ!” cried W.

“Wrong again,” said the guy.

W. thought he looked unpleasantly familiar, like someone he had seen on TV, and obviously gay.

“Magnum!” he called out. “Bullitt!”

“They can’t hear you.”

“Barney?”

“He can’t hear you either.”

So this must be one of those dreams, W. thought, where you dream you wake up but you really haven’t. He ran his tongue along the inside of his teeth, which felt surprisingly realistic, considering.

“So who the hell are you? Peter Pan?”

The oversized elf squared his shoulders. “I am the ghost of Christmas Past.”

“Ya don’t say,” muttered W., blinking at him. “Can I call you Chris?”

“No.” In three strides the ghost stood directly before him. “Grab my candle.”

“No way!”

“Oops.” C. Past reached under the front of his jacket and drew out a lit taper. “Grab my candle, and I will show you scenes from your Christmasses Past.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Come on, just do it,” urged the other impatiently, thrusting the candle at W.’s face.

W. raised a hand to fend it off and ended up gripping it. Suddenly it was as if someone had flushed the room; W. found himself spinning out of control. It was a lot like being drunk — if one were a beer.

He came to a surprising, stumbling halt beside the elf. As his stomach settled, W. immediately recognized the bedroom.

It took only a moment longer to recognize the young man sprawled asleep on top of the bed, fully dressed.

“So,” said C. Past, “you may remember this Christmas. Then again –” He craned his neck to peer significantly at the rumpled figure on the bed. “– maybe you don’t.”

“Can we go now?”

“We just got here.”

“But I don’t see what purpose this is gonna serve.”

“Of course you don’t. Because we just got here.”

There was a quick rap at the bedroom door before it opened. The even younger man who stood there cupped his hands around his mouth and rattled out a vocal version of Reveille. The body on the bed stirred.

“On your feet, soldier!” called the one entering the room. “You’ve been reported AWOL. If you’re not downstairs in five minutes, it’s latrine duty for you.”

The bedridden groaned as the other approached him.

“Seriously, brother. You have any idea what time it is? Mum and Poppie are not happy.”

“Lemme jus’ sleep ‘nother hour.”

“Can’t do it. They are unhappy you went out with your frat buddies instead of coming to church with the family last night, and they are really unhappy it’s nearly noon on Christmas and you haven’t shown up yet.”

“Church boring,” guttered the younger W. “So’s Christmas.”

“Sounds like you’ve had plenty of Christmas cheer.” His brother tugged on his leg. “And it looks like you managed to get one shoe off.”

Younger W. kicked at him listlessly.

“Lea’me ‘lone.”

“Aw, jeese. And you peed yourself.”

“Huh?” The disheveled head raised from the mattress. “I did not.”

“So someone else did that,” said his brother, pointing. “It’s never your fault.”

Christmas Past turned to the president. “Emission accomplished, heh?” He laughed.

W. scowled. “I still don’t see the point of all this. So some mistakes were made when I was young. I got over it.”

“Did you?” asked the elf.

“Of course I did. Just look at me.”

By this time the younger brother had yanked the younger W. to a sitting position. W.’s head hung over his knees.

“I can’t believe you’re wearing your Air National Guard jacket too,” the brother was saying. “Did that help with the girls?”

Younger W. grunted noncommitally.

“Haven’t you heard that college girls these days say ‘yes’ only to boys who say ‘no’?”

Younger W. mumbled something.

C. Past turned to the president. “Whoa! Did I just hear you say, ‘Fuck you?’ Or was that ‘Fuck them’?”

The brother was pulling the younger W. to his feet, the latter tottering against the other’s grip.

“Hey, is that white powder under your nose?” asked brother.

W. wiped feverishly with his jacket sleeve.

“Maybe it’s just dried snot,” chuckled his brother.

“This is almost forty years ago,” said present W. “What’s past doesn’t matter. Water under the bridge.”

“Easy for you to say. Grab my candle.”

W. flinched. The elf held it out.

“You want out of here? Grab my candle.”

W. grabbed his candle. They whirled away.

They came to rest inside a substantially appointed church. The congregation, led by a harmonious choir and a throbbing organ, was singing “Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“This is more like it,” said W.

“You know where you are.”

“Sure,” he said reverently. “This is where I was born again.” He scanned the congregation.

“There.” The elf pointed to the middle of the pew in front of them. “That’s what you’re looking for.”

W. recognized himself in profile, at midlife, with his wife and two little girls, singing along with the hymn.

“You’re feeling pretty good about yourself at this point,” said C. Past.

“That’s right. ‘Cause I have the spirit of the Lord in me.”

“Yep, feeling very proud of yourself. Smug, even.”

W. turned to him with a scowl. “Quiet,” he whispered. “This is a church service.”

“They can’t hear us.” The elf lifted his voice and sang out: “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg.” He looked back at W. “See?”

“You’re disrespecting.”

“What? The Lord? Or you? Or do you know the difference?” The spirit nodded toward the W. of decades yore. “You had gotten off the booze and gotten hooked on religion. Now you could do no wrong.”

“Christians aren’t perfect; just forgiven.”

“So all your sins would be erased, right? Anything you had done in the past or would do in the future.”

“That’s right.”

“No matter what you do, God would still love you.”

“Well, duh.”

“And you don’t need anyone else’s approval as long as you have God’s. You have a get out of hell free card that you can use any time, all the time. You never have to learn from your mistakes.”

“So what’s your point?”

“You were born again, but did you grow up?”

“Huh?”

“Here, catch!”

The specter tossed his candle at W. He raised a hand to block it and felt himself flushed again.

He awoke on the sofa, head still spinning. The frosty window was still dark; the television still quietly playing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Oh good, he thought, it was still the middle of the night. Still plenty of time to get to bed and have a good night’s sleep. He swung his slippers to the floor, where pretzels crunched underfoot.

A crash from the fireplace jolted him upright. There amid the smoke and glowing clinkers loomed a broad rear end covered in a familiar red, fur-trimmed suit. Somehow the figure unfolded on the hearth, proving much larger than the space it had occupied. This was more like it, thought W.

The bearded visitor whacked at his own butt, whirling in pursuit of it. “Shit! I think I’m on fire.”

“Santa!” cried W.

“No. Osama bin Laden.”

“Huh?”

The specter stopped slapping himself. “Actually, I’m the ghost of Christmas Present. Yeah, yeah, I know; don’t bother with the jokes. Christmas Present. I’ve fuckin’ heard ’em all already.”

“Wait a second,” said W., after waiting a couple. “I must still be dreaming, right?”

“Hey, anybody home? You musta got the whole goddamn explanation two visitations ago.”

“You’re not here to leave a Christmas present?”

“No, I — Wait, was that a joke, after I warned you?” The rotund specter stepped within arm’s reach of W. and shook a finger. “Don’t make me bitch-slap you.”

He was close enough that W. could see the dense skein of tiny veins across the ruddy face.

“Is this really necessary?” W. asked.

“Oh, let me think.” The specter folded his arms, raising one hand to stroke his beard in an exaggerated gesture of contemplation. “Yeah,” he said, dropping his arms again. He crooked one arm at W. “Now touch my sleeve.”

“Why?”

“Because I fucking said so. That’s why.”

W. gingerly reached forward. “You don’t sound like Santa Claus.”

“No shit, numbnuts.”

He jerked his arm at W., who opened his hand to stop it. As soon as he made contact, he was blasted toward the window. No time to holler before he burst through the wall and into the winter night. He found himself gripping the arm of the ghost as they soared at top speed into the darkness over Camp David. With his breath gone and the wind in his ears, W. could barely even think let alone speak. And there was hardly time. In mere seconds they were swooping into a rapid sunrise, then dropping toward a large government complex W. thought he recognized. He was both exhilarated and terrified as they dropped directly at the roof of the hospital. They boomed through, then through a few other floors. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel good either.

They braked to an abrupt halt in a large ward, hitting the floor in a crouch. There was a long line of beds on either side, each one occupied. Several had clusters of visitors around them.

“I’ve been here before,” said W., eyes starting to water. “Or dozens of places like it.”

“You think this is about you?” said the ghost. “Just shut the fuck up and listen.”

W. scowled but obeyed.

They strolled down the central aisle, past men in bandages, men with fresh scars, men with modest collections of holiday decorations and cards on their bedside tables. They passed one man resting with an Ipod in his ears, an IV in his hand, and a barely human face stitched together like a quilt. W. winced.

Just past him they stopped at a bed surrounded by a family that looked hispanic: a young woman, her face wet, a guy about thirty, a boy around eleven, all standing, and an older woman seated on the bedside chair, her hands folded in her lap. The man in the bed had his face and hands swaddled.

“– so the doctor says you could be home in a month, Manolito,” the standing guy was saying. “Of course, you won’t be as good as new by then, but that’s a start — eh, hermano?” He patted him on the shoulder.

“Tell him about the party,” said the young woman, her voice faint and shaky.

“Yeah, we’re planning a big party for your homecoming. You know, cuando estás listo. Everybody we know is looking forward to seeing you again, nuestro héroe. That should make up for this Christmas and New Year’s. Lots of beer and Bacardi, hey?”

He chuckled and patted him again.

The older woman in the chair rattled off something in Spanish, and the guy replied in the same tongue.

“Gosh, I wish I could talk to them,” said W.

“Make you feel better, would it?” said C. Present.

“I’d like to thank them for his service to the country and to the cause of freedom. Invite them to drop by if they’re ever in Texas after this.”

“Nice. And while you’re at it, you can give the kid in the bed back the fingers he lost. Oh yeah, and his sight.”

“He’s blind?”

“They’re not sure yet. They won’t know till the bandages come off in another week. It was a roadside bomb, in case you’re curious. In Afghanistan, of all places. Now why the hell would the Marines still be there after seven years?”

“‘Cause the war on terror isn’t over.”

“War without end, amen, heh? Anyway, it isn’t your problem anymore. Too bad Manolito can’t just walk away.”

C. Present strolled on; with a last look at the family scene W. followed.

“On the other hand, Tim can walk away.” The ghost pointed. “Not too well, but getting better.”

A muscular young man stood on crutches, talking to a pair of older folks, no doubt his parents. He had one leg, one skinny prosthesis.

“We could listen in to their conversation,” said the ghost, “but we wouldn’t hear the best part. They’re not telling him they’re losing their house to foreclosure. They figure he doesn’t need to hear any bad news on Christmas Day. And he’s not telling them about his nightmares, some of which he has when he’s wide awake. But they’ll all find out soon enough. Happy New Year!” he called out to the amputee and his family, even though they couldn’t hear him.

“These patriotic young men are proud of their service, and so are their families. So am I.”

“Great. Then there’s no harm, no foul. It’s all good, right?”

“Well . . . I wouldn’t say ‘good,'” W. muttered.

“Anyway, most of these guys will live mostly normal lives. Not Tim actually. He’ll marry his fiancée this next year, but his anger and depression will screw up his marriage and keep him from holding a job. He’ll blow his own brains out within three years.”

“That’s horrible! How can we help him?”

“Can you unsend him to Iraq and undo his trauma? Can you unblow off his leg?”

“Of course not.”

“Then you’ve already done everything you can do. Don’t worry. When Tim kills himself, you won’t even know.”

The ghost walked on.

“If there’s nothing I can do, why are even here?” demanded W.

The red-suited figure turned to him. “Where do you want to go?”

“Can I go home now?”

“Sure. Touch my sleeve.” He held it out.

“That’s all?”

“Yeah.”

W. touched his sleeve. They shot up through the ceiling of the ward and out of the hospital.

“Hope you won’t mind if we take the long way home,” said the specter.

“Whaddya mean?” W. shouted over the wind.

“Think of it as a presidential legacy tour.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“You can let go any time.”

“Really?”

“Sure. You’ll probably wake up on your fuckin’ couch. But first you’ll have to feel what it’s like to fall ten thousand feet and hit the earth like a ripe tomato, breaking every bone in your body at once.”

W. held on.

It was indeed the long way home. The ghost of Christmas Present took W. to a valley in Tennessee where hilltops had been scraped naked and all the streams were choked with waste, and where the holiday was overshadowed by the sump of possibly toxic coal ash oozing toward the homes. He took him to a trailer park in northern Mississippi where victims of Katrina still waited for their neighborhoods to be rebuilt. He took him to New Orleans, or what was left of it, to the home of a single family left in a devastated ward. In Texas they visited a town on the edge of a waste site that had turned into a cancer cluster. There they settled into a pitiful home — pitiful in every sense — where an overweight mom and dad and their two surviving children mourned the death of little Marlissa, finally claimed by leukemia the previous week.

“Couldn’t get treatment soon enough,” the ghost of Christmas Present informed W. “They didn’t have enough medical insurance, and a federal program that might have extended coverage was vetoed by the president. Who, by the way, also prevented them from suing the chemical company that refused to clean up the site. Which the company didn’t have to do because the same president changed the regulations that would have required them to do so.”

C. Present stroked his white beard. “Let’s see. Which president was that anyway? He must have been a real motherfucker.” He glared at W. “Oh yeah, now I remember.”

Despite W.’s increasingly shrill protests, the ghost took him to modern ghost towns in Arizona, Nevada, and California, places where easy credit had created McMansion settlements, and where the credit crash had emptied them of all but a few families. Swinging back through the midwest, they landed in a town that had just lost its last factory, and another that had lost its favorite son, a high school football star, to recent action in Iraq.

Finally they swooped down over Camp David once again.

“Seen enough?” asked C. Present.

“I’d seen enough six hours ago. You’ve ruined my whole Christmas.”

“Good. Let go.”

“What?”

“We’re coming in over your place. Let the fuck go.”

The ghost vigorously shook his sleeve. W. lost his grip and felt himself falling. He heard himself yelling. He dropped a hundred feet before crashing through the roof of the presidential lodge. It hurt.

He bounced to wakefulness on the sofa. It took several moments for him to catch his breath and clear his head. During that time he realized that it was still dark outside the window and that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was still on TV. So he had not missed the whole of Christmas Day after all. Maybe I can get to bed before anything else shows up, he told himself. When he finally swung his feet to the floor, pretzels crunched under his slippers. As soon as he faced the door, however, a cloud of light particles sparkled in front of him, resolving with a hum into a humanoid shape. Crap, he thought.

Before him stood a tall black figure in a long black cape. Its oversized helmet gleamed, and the mask that covered its face looked vaguely skull-like. A control panel of some sort glittered on its armored chest, and something like breath hissed mechanically.

“Don’t tell me,” said W. “You’re the guy for the future.”

It simply stood there, hissing.

“Okay, do tell me.”

It stepped ponderously toward him.

“Uh, you’re going to show me how well prosterity has exulted my memory, right?”

The black figure continued forward.

“Fine then. Bring it on.”

Only when the specter whipped out its light saber and swung it down did W. cower.

In a flash they were standing in the open, albeit under an oppressive ceiling of glowering gray skies. The atmosphere was sultry and smelled faintly sulfurous. Suddenly lightning cracked across the heavy clouds, followed immediately by rumbling thunder. In its wake, W. noticed the huge, squarish building squatting in the twilight a short walk away.

“This is supposed to be Christmas?” he said as a warm wind snatched at his robe. “This isn’t winter weather, not even in Texas.”

The black specter touched his control panel with a gloved hand and a flat-screen TV ignited across his chest. He pushed a couple buttons more, and it showed a woman with a bubble of shiny blue hair and lipstick to match behind a curvy news desk, apparently wearing nothing more than a coat of glitter.

“Well, once again it doesn’t look like it’s going to be a white Christmas,” she said. “In a pattern we’ve seen most of this decade, temperatures should be mostly in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s across the southern tier of states. Fortunately, we don’t expect to see more of the tornados that tore through Arkansas and Tennessee this week, although an extreme storm system passing through Texas may cause problems between now and New Year’s.”

“What does this have to do with me?” asked W.

The hulking figure touched a control on his chest, and the channel changed.

“– wide consensus among climatologists,” said the man onscreen, who wore what looked like goggles and a green plastic suit, “that we wouldn’t be seeing such runaway warming if only the U.S. had assumed some leadership on climate change at the beginning of this century. Instead, it dropped the ball and doomed the globe.”

“So what?” huffed W. “So the media is still against me. But I’ll bet I’m remembered for other things, like spreading democracy across the Middle East.”

Lightning flashed again, and W. saw the specter pointing stiff-armed at the building in front of them, across a stretch of dead brush and bare trees.

“What? What’s that building supposed to tell me?” He tucked in his robe against the wind and the first drops of rain. “I’m not leaving this spot until I get some answers.”

The light saber whirred, and W. found himself on the stone steps of the entrance. He was about to protest again when he saw the bold gold lettering in the wall overhead.

“My presidential library!” he exclaimed. “Now we’re gettin’ somewhere.” He faced the massive glass doors, which had been sealed with a banner reading “Closed For Repair,” only to be broken.

“Can we go in?”

The figure merely hissed and pointed at the jagged hole.

“I’ll take that for a ‘yes.'”

W. stuck a foot through the hole, catching his heel on a sharp protrusion. He yelped but ducked lamely through to the other side. Shards crunched beneath his slippers. He turned to watch the specter enter, only to find him already standing at his side.

“It’s dark. How are we supposed to see anyth –“

The dark figure raised a glove as if to say “Halt” just as lighning flickered and thunder boomed. As the sound trailed off, W. realized the thing had ceased its loud breathing. Instead, he heard distant voices resonating inside the cavernous structure. The ghost strode off in their direction, his breathing resuming, and W. followed. Soon he saw a flickering yellow light: low flames-like a campfire. Shadows hunched around it.

“– our last cans of food,” a hoarse voice growled. “Considerin’ all the towns in this goddamn wasteland have been stripped, I guess it’s back t’ eatin’ jackrabbit.”

“Hope that don’t mean we have to leave this place,” said a second over the slurping of some sloppy cuisine.

“Even though we’ve burned all the old shit that’ll burn and grabbed anything we can barter?”

“At least it’s a roof over our heads. Just what is a presentensal liberry anyway?”

“It’s like a museum, ya dumbfucks,” said a third, stronger voice. “About a president.”

“Oh yeah? Which one?”

“You’ve been here three days and not noticed? He was the one who got a bullet in his brain during that hunting accident but survived.”

“Oh yeah, I remember now. They said it was a miracle. Even with a hole in his head he weren’t no different.”

“Says in here he started the war in Eye-rack.”

“What’s Eye-rack?”

“Don’t you ‘member? It used to be a country. The one where that big war in the Middle East began.”

“Well, nice of the guy to leave us this dry place to shit, anyway.”

There was harsh laughter. W. turned to the ghost.

“Come on,” he said. “I gotta be remembered for more than that. What about funding AIDS in Africa.”

The black figure pivoted and strode off in a different direction.

“Hey, shouldn’t we be getting home? Seriously, tomorrow’s Christmas and I need a good night’s sleep.”

The caped docent stopped and pointed at a shadowed wall.

“Okay, just tell me. Are you saying this is how it will be, or how it might be? The future hasn’t actually happened yet, y’ know, so this can’t be set in stone. Right?”

The specter continued pointing at the wall. W. shuffled up beside him. Lightning flashed, and light splashed onto a presidential portrait, across which someone had painted in ragged diagonal lettering the word “LOSER.”

W. looked back at the specter. “So?”

A black glove slapped against the helmet’s forehead, and the ghost slowly shook its head. The last thing W. saw was the light saber whirling toward his neck.

When he awoke, he was in the presidential bed, alone. A suited man stood at the bedroom door.

“Bullitt!” said W.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. President,” he said, “but breakfast is ready, and the First Lady says if you don’t hurry you’ll miss presents.”

“Then I haven’t slept through Christmas?”

“No sir. Did you sleep well?”

“I had some funny dreams. I think one of them had Ronald Reagan in it. I hope that’s a good sign. Heh-heh.”

“Should I tell the others you’re on your way?”

“Yep.”

In front of his closet, W. picked out trousers and shirt as images from the night continued to haunt him. Maybe after Christmas he should drop down to the hospital at Bethesda and see if there was a Marine named Tim. Maybe he should find out if those other families existed that he had visited in his visions. Then again, he had so much to do in the next couple of weeks, especially all those executive orders to loosen safety regulations for workers and health regulations for recipients of federal care and environmental rules and species protections, all in order to cement his legacy before the next administration could take over. He still had almost a month left in which to make a difference.

On the other hand, he reflected, maybe it wasn’t too late to reconsider his priorities. Maybe the dreams of this dark Christmas Eve had been trying to tell him something.

“Nah!” he concluded, pulling up his pants.

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